by Zia Ur Rehman

July 2, 2012

KABUL – Like thousands of Afghan children, Wahidullah, 13, spent much of his childhood running around on the streets of Kabul in all weather, selling plastic bags to help support his family.

But his life changed after he was admitted to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a public-private partnership that gives orphans, street vendors and other disadvantaged children a chance to develop themselves through music and help them recover from the war.

“I never could have dreamed that such a great change could happen in my life,” Wahidullah told Central Asia Online.

After decades of civil war and the Taliban’s ban on music, Afghanistan is trying to resuscitate music. ANIM, founded in 2008, is one avenue toward that goal.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they banned music.

“Adopting an extreme interpretation of Islam, the Taliban decreed that women could not work or study. They also prohibited music, calling it ‘un-Islamic,’ and (publicly) burned instruments, cassette tapes and other musical recordings,” said Wahid Gul Wafa, a Kabul-based singer.

Musicians who fled are returning

Many musicians fled the country during the Taliban’s crackdown, but now some are returning home.

“After the fall of the Taliban regime (in 2001), many Afghan musicians returned from lives as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan and other countries and started working again without any fear,” Wafa said.

One returnee was Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, who returned from Australia and opened ANIM at the site where his musical education began as a boy.

“For more than 20 years, children couldn’t learn music in Afghanistan,” Sarmast said. “I wanted to create a proper school.” ANIM is not the first music school in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Education established the School of Fine Arts in 1973 in Kabul, but the school had a chaotic history. It was repeatedly shelled and looted by warring mujahedeen groups who would use expensive musical instruments for kindling and as ammunition cases, caretakers said.

ANIM’s objective

ANIM now functions under the auspices of the Ministry of Education with financial support from foreign countries and international musicians.

“Starting at age 10, boys and girls will learn Afghan and Western classical traditions alongside a regular curriculum that includes English, mathematics and learning the holy Koran,” said James Herzog, a music instructor at ANIM.

Considering that Afghanistan had never included the arts within its general education curriculum, Herzog termed it an impressive step.

“Historically, music has been a vibrant and important part of Afghan culture, but war and neglect have left students without teachers, teachers without resources, and professional musicians without a context for their art,” Sarmast said.

Prominent Afghan musicians, such as Gholam Hossein, Ustad Amruddin, Abdul Latif, and Mohammed Jawid Mahmood, teach ABIN students to play traditional Afghan instruments.

“ANIM is prepared to offer music classes to our young generation,” Education Minister Farooq Wardak said at an April press conference. “We are making efforts to revive cultural and art activities across the country, and the ANIM is an example of our on-going efforts.”

And Sarmast said he plans to open three more schools in Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Opportunities for orphans and street children

ANIM is committed to providing a dynamic, challenging and safe learning environment for all students regardless of gender, ethnicity or social circumstances.

“We also have a special focus on supporting the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society – the orphans and street children – to help them attain a vocation that will allow them to reach their full potential,” said Herzog, adding that 50% of the school’s spots are reserved for underprivileged children, whose families receive a monthly stipend of about US $30 (1,500 AFN) so the children can attend the school instead of working.

ANIM students and recent graduates have formed a rock band named White Page, which plays a mix of their own music and songs from other groups.

“The ANIM has provided us a great opportunity to teach us traditional and Western music,” Rashed Afzali, a member of the band, told Central Asia Online. “Our country has a long legacy of music and poetry, and now the young generation is trying to revive it again.”